Trump vs. Public Schools and Democracy

Edd Doerr

Upon winning his party’s nomination in 2016, Donald Trump (who never attended or sent his kids to public schools) chose as his running mate Indiana’s failing governor Mike Pence, an evangelical fundamentalist known for his hostility toward public schools, religious liberty, and women’s rights. After winning the electoral college but not the popular vote, Trump chose as his secretary of education Betsy DeVos, an extremely wealthy woman by inheritance and marriage who never attended or sent her kids to public schools and never taught in or managed a public school, but who spent tons of money trying (spectacularly unsuccessfully) to influence Michigan voters to approve the diversion of public funds to church-run and other special-interest private schools through vouchers.

Trump and DeVos have made it very clear, along with most federal and state lawmakers in their party, that they are no friends of the public schools and that they favor compelling all taxpayers to support a growing array of religious and other private schools. In addition, they salivate for a hoard of for-profit charter schools and EMOs (Education Management Organizations). They blissfully ignore the twenty-eight state referenda from coast to coast over the past fifty years in which voters opposed all such gimmicks two to one, not to mention the raft of studies showing that the vast majority of charter schools are no improvement over regular public schools and that the minority that do well tend to be selective in ways prohibited for public schools.

Now joining the long list of books defending public education is Sarah M. Stitzlein’s excellent American Public Education and the Responsibility of Its Citizens: Supporting Democracy in the Age of Accountability (Oxford University Press, 2017, 228 pp.). University of Cincinnati educator-philosopher Stitzlein makes clear from the outset that public education is absolutely essential for the preservation and enhancement of democracy in America. She analyzes and scores the years of conservative and “neoliberal” efforts to undermine the public schools that serve 90 percent of kids in the United States through the diversion of public funds to private schools and through vouchers and tax credits and for-profit charters.

After totally gutting the case for diverting public funds to church-connected and other private schools, Stitzlein goes on to another vitally important subject, the serious atrophy of civics education in our public schools in recent decades, to which she attributes much of the deterioration of American politics. She then offers serious recommendations for restoring and beefing up civics education to previously unachieved levels. Teachers, parents, school boards, and citizens generally would benefit from reading this five-star book. As a former history teacher, I agree with the author.

Trump vs. His Rural Voter Base

Nearly 20 percent of our fifty million public school students live in rural areas and small towns. Nearly half of rural students are from poor families. The average spending per student in rural schools is $6,067 per year as compared to $11,841 nationwide. In Pence’s largely rural Indiana, since 2011 the state has shifted $520 million to its school voucher program, with the beneficiaries mainly in urban and suburban areas. (Statistics are from the Fall 2017 NEA Today.) The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-determination Act, passed in 2000, aided four thousand school districts in forty-one states, but the law expired in 2016 and Congress has failed to renew it.

In 2016, roughly two-thirds of rural voters cast their ballots for Trump. Yet Trump has made it clear that he wants to divert more public funds to vouchers and charters, the overwhelming majority of which are in urban and suburban areas. “Give me your votes, but I couldn’t care less about your starving public schools.”

Interestingly, Republican-controlled Texas has been unable to pass voucher legislation because state representatives from rural areas, nearly all Republican, understand that their school districts stand to lose tax support under a voucher plan.

Finally, let me recommend Katherine Stewart’s superb article “The Proselytizers and the Privatizers: How Religious Sectarian School Voucher Extremists Made Useful Idiots of the Charter Movement,” in the Fall 2017 issue of The American Prospect.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

Trump education policies favor vouchers and charters, further disadvantaging his strongly-rural voter base.

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